Toh EnJoe is the award-winning author of a number of short stories, and now a short story collection/not-quite novel Self-Reference ENGINE. This collection, translated from the original Japanese by Terry Gallagher for Haikasoru Press, is a mind-bending collection of post-singularity fiction, surrealism, and humor.
With the able help of Haikasoru’s translation team, we bring you this interview with the author, former mathematical physicist Toh EnJoe!
Karen Burnham: Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview! Your book, Self-Reference ENGINE, is structured differently than a novel and also differently than a typical short story collection. Could you explain what people will find in the book and what your intention was in structuring it in such a unique way?
Toh EnJoe: It is I who should thank you for your time.
What you say is true, this book is constructed in an unusual way, with some aspects of a novel, and some aspects of a short-story collection. Things seem connected, but at the same time not. Stories that seem completely unrelated then have characters that seem to be the same. Reading it, anyone would be confused. But if you think about it, doesn’t it seem strange that a “collection of short stories that seem to be sort of somehow connected” is more confusing to read than a “collection of completely unrelated short stories”? Even though it might be a “collection of completely unrelated short stories that just happen to have some characters with the same names.”
Allow me to give you two examples.
- Here I have a novel, with chapters, and in each chapter of the story there are characters with the same name who are actually completely different people.
- And here I have a short-story collection that seems to be a collection of completely unrelated stories, but in the course of reading it I discover that it’s really a novel, and the characters actually represent the same people, just with different names.
You are free to read the words any way you choose.
To me, space and time can be looked at in the same way, as a kind of expression to be “read.” “Nature” – space and time – may look different depending on how we choose to read it.
And so, in this book, we have a situation where space/time is “broken.” It is only natural that the narration of this situation is peculiar. At least, for me.
KB: The stories in Self-Reference ENGINE contain references to everything from Japanese theatre to Sherlock Holmes to Greek myth. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what you enjoy reading?
TE: Some time ago, I liked things like math and physics and philosophy, things that were regarded as “fundamental.” From there, my interest spread to history and mythology, that were more about story-telling, and from there my interest extended to things that were about the way people live. I am like a robot that is gradually becoming more human.
Basically, I will read anything written with characters. When I was younger, I couldn’t read travel diaries, or romance novels, but now I like to read travel diaries. What I still find difficult, though, are business books and self-help books. But at some point I think I will learn to read them too.
In the past 10 years or so, though, I think I have been rapidly losing touch with the joys of dilettantism. (Of course, this pains me. “Can humans ever beat search engines in the realms of pedantic and esoteric knowledge?”)
KB: Your profession is in theoretical physics, and physics and pure math show up clearly in the stories here. How important is it to you to combine science with literature? As a side question, do your physics colleagues know about your literary life, and if so, what do they think of it?
TE: Much as I might try to put it behind me, it’s still there. Lest we forget, this is the 21st century. Most things that people call “work” have some element of science and technology mixed in. Compared with even just a hundred years ago, when people already knew about the Theory of Relativity, but still traveled in horse-drawn carts, “science” is now everywhere.
So, we have the literary view of science, but the scientific view of literature has been less developed. In fact, I would venture to say that most technical people do not read fiction. It isn’t interesting to them. Partly I am writing for people like that. Without readers on both sides of that line, it is very difficult to combine these things.
As far as my erstwhile physics colleagues are concerned, they tell me I should add more technical, topical material. They say that if I can’t come up with ideas that are more interesting than state-of-the-art science, that I should just be doing science instead.
KB: Watching a book go through translation must be difficult, especially one with so many esoteric concepts as this particular book. Do you feel that the math and physics-based stories are easier or more difficult for a translator to handle? How much have you been able to get involved in the translation efforts?
I lived for a long time among very technically-oriented people, so my standards for what is easy and what is hard might be different from yours. This is more than just a semantic distinction, it is a matter of the different ways people think in different fields. For example, I have a hard time reading business stories, or police stories. I can’t understand what is happening in them. But I can still enjoy them.
Simply put, I think this may be a matter of what kinds of fiction predominate in the ecosystem that is fiction. There are not many stories that deal with mathematics or physics as their central themes, so I think there are still a lot of things out there to be tried.
Quite apart from that, though, I think that translating my writing must be very hard. Japanese has its own peculiarities to begin with, but on top of that I am playing around with the language. I throw in old TV commercials, songs I learned in elementary school, things that even Japanese people find a bit obscure. I “sample” other texts that have been translated into Japanese, and twist them around in my own personal way.
But what’s the big deal? I don’t think that translating my writing is harder than translating poetry, or translating Oulipo.
Sometimes I wonder about whether it wouldn’t be possible to write something that absolutely could not be translated.
KB: Thanks again very much for your time!
TE: It was my pleasure. Thank you.